Short Takes

Book briefs for the month of May, 2001

To the Elephant Graveyard By Tarquin Hall Atlantic Monthly (2000), $24

Associated Press journalist Tarquin Hall was stationed in India when he heard that a rogue elephant was murdering farmers in Assam. The rogue wasn’t just rampaging through farm villages; it was creeping through them stealthily (as stealthily as a nine-foot-tall elephant can creep), selecting a particular hut, then battering the hut apart to reach the terrified individual inside. Then it got really ugly; the victims weren’t identifiable after the tusker was finished with them.

Indian law decrees that an elephant must kill twelve people before it can be legally marked for execution; the hope is that the elephant will mend its ways before reaching that point. This elephant showed no signs of reform, and a warrant had been posted for its destruction. Hall contacted the hunter who had been assigned the job of dispatching the elephant and asked if he could tag along. The reporter theorized that the farmers’ reports were hysterical lies designed to protect their crops, not their lives, and that the hunter was a blood-hungry oaf who’d do anything to shoot a seven-ton animal. World-wise Hall intended to expose the whole rotten scheme.

Of course, the real story was much more complicated. The elephant did single out its victims: they were all drunk, and we learn later why the beast had a grudge against drunken men. Hall paints himself the buffoon, sometimes too well–my only quibble with this book is that there are occasions when our narrator takes too long to catch up to what the reader has already grasped. But mostly I was vastly entertained by Hall’s hilarious recounting of the characters and animals he meets on his adventure. The chapters are interlaced with amazing facts about elephants (some are alcoholics; all are way too intelligent to be kept off farmers’ property)–and we soon appreciate why the animals are raiding villages and fields. Like animals everywhere on earth, the tuskers are losing their habitat by hundreds of acres a month, being herded into smaller and smaller areas as rain forest is replaced by crop land.

The hunter, Dinesh Choudhury, is likewise a much more complicated individual than Hall had foreseen, and the journalist soon finds himself in the odd position of begging the hunter to kill the animal. But Choudhury has his own standards to satisfy, and during the course of the hunt, he uses Hall’s fascination with the myth of the elephant graveyard to get across a conservationist message that is more compelling than what Hall originally intended. This is a book that creeps up on you, much like the rogue; by the end, you’ll see how much of the wild we’ve lost.

–Linnea Due

Unacknowledged Legislation:Writers in the Public Sphere By Christopher Hitchens Verso (2000), $25

The best book review ever written was a single sentence by Ambrose Bierce, and it went: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” The victims of Christopher Hitchens’ reviews collected between these covers probably ought to pray that it will be over that quickly. In fact the prurient reader should probably skip ahead to the “Enemies” section to savor the execution, simultaneously brutal and surgical, of soon-to-be-inhabitants of the Hitchens crawlspace: Tom Clancy, dispatched as a pitiful hack who deserves to be praised by Ronald Reagan; Tom Wolfe, exposed as a not-so-crypto-racist; and bring-me-the-head-of Norman Podhoretz, aka “perhaps the most unscrupulous man of letters of our time.” Now sated, the reader may consider the theme of this collection: the rescue of literature from “employ[ment] of political standards as a device for the analysis and appreciation of poetry” (and fiction). To this end, Hitchens drops the penalty flag on Raymond Williams for deliberate misreadings of George Orwell, celebrates Oscar Wilde for his egalitarian irony, nominates Gore Vidal as the latter-day Wilde, and unmasks Isaiah Berlin as that most regrettable of modern archetypes, hiding behind a facade of disinterested scholarship while handing fig leaves to the powerful. He also detects previously unsuspected, “involuntary” political dimensions in writers as unlikely as P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Hitchens will inevitably come in for criticism for his choice of subjects, generally pale and penised as they are. In discussing conservative authors he remains true to his roughly Trotskyist politics, the kind of socialist who, when called to criticize T.S. Eliot, would never stoop to calling him, as did one Communist Party member uncomfortable with the poet’s arid modernism, “an enemy of the people.” (This goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the American party’s “martyrs” were often nothing more than highly paid Hollywood hacks.) Hitchens is an alert and well-armed sentry on the border of literature’s “zone of ambiguity,” and Unacknowledged Legislation is beautiful barbed wire.

–David Hill

Killing PabloBy Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly (2001), $25

Mark Bowden, author of the best-selling nonfiction technothriller Black Hawk Down, tells the story of how US special forces and intelligence agencies collaborated with Colombian authorities and rival traffickers in tracking down the violent, multibillionaire head of the Medellín cocaine cartel, Pablo Escobar. It is not a pretty story.

The first part deals with Escobar’s rise to power, his successful war against the government to make Colombia renounce its extradition treaty with the US, and his voluntary incarceration in a palatial prison designed according to his specs on a hilltop high above his native Medellín. For this, Bowden tells a story already well known. It is after Escobar’s cakewalk from the prison and the humiliated Colombian government’s acceptance of US help that Bowden’s access to US intelligence sources proves fruitful, though that access has its limits.

With the Cold War over, competing US intelligence agencies scrambled to prove their worth (and maintain their budgets). The result was that the search for a renegade drug dealer became “like a sweepstakes. See who could demonstrate the most effectiveness first…. There were so many American spy planes over Medellín, at one point seventeen at once, that the Air Force had to assign an AWAC, an airborne command and control center, to keep track of them. It took ten C-130s just to deliver the contractors, maintenance and support staffs for all this stuff.”

Yet all this failed to bring Escobar down. They weren’t able to pluck him off his mountain. Instead, after consulting with his former partners as well as with rival dealers from Cali, the decision was made to destroy the mountain first. Thus began an ugly collaboration between Colombian police authorities, other traffickers, paramilitary death-squad members, and US intelligence (including alumni of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam and the campaign against Salvador Allende in Chile) to systematically and very publicly assassinate members of Escobar’s extended family, his accountants, lawyers, and lieutenants, until finally Escobar was left standing alone, without support. The shadowy group that carried out these killings was known as the People Against Pablo Escobar. But at every step of the way they were fed information by US intelligence agents who at best turned a blind eye to how their information was used. It is a terrible story that Bowden tells, and by the end power had simply shifted to the Cali traffickers.

–Michael Covino

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People By Susan Orlean Random House (2001), $24.95

“If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale,” begins Susan Orlean in a story about a show-quality boxer dog and his handlers. “He’s friendly, good looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools.”

Biff and his owners are profiled in Orlean’s new book, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, a collection of articles written mostly for the New Yorker between 1987 and 1999. Although Orlean includes interviews with a few conventionally famous people such as Bill Blass and Marky Mark, for the most part she writes about the extraordinary qualities she finds in ordinary subjects. The pleasure of this collection is the chance to meet people who are unusual, but not so much as to be incomprehensible.

The book highlights two kinds of folks: those who are famous within their own subculture, and those who represent larger groups. Included among the 35 profiles is a New York City cab driver who is also king of the African Ashanti tribe in the US; three Bulgarian tennis-star sisters; the Spanish woman matador for whom the book is titled; a Beverly Hills interior decorator; a gospel choir called the Southernaires; a ten-year-old boy; teenage surfer girls on Maui; a small-town newspaper reporter; and members of the Tonya Harding fan club. Orlean practically channels her subjects, absorbing their idiosyncrasies and even their syntax to the point that we often forget about her presence. The people profiled in Bullfighter fascinate in the same way the 1999 film Being John Malkovich does: for a moment, we enter a life unlike ours, yet somehow familiar.

As the characters in Being John Malkovich discover, the danger of channeling is being overwhelmed by one’s subject. Occasionally Orlean does lose control of a profile, and her subject takes over, as in “After the Party,” a piece about a washed-up Hollywood agent, which consists of a bitter monologue about the town that let her down. On the whole, however, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup reveals Orlean’s gift for stitching her material into a seamless garment, so that all readers see is the pattern on top of the fabric, and not the work underneath.

–Kate Madden Yee

Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief By Huston Smith HarperCollins (2000), $25.00

Huston Smith doesn’t ask if religion should matter, but tells why religion should matter to the average human being. That may be a nice distinction, but one that is of critical importance to Smith. “Built into the human spirit,” he writes, “is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite.”

An adept scholar and theologian, Smith makes many asides on everything from religion to literature to current sociopolitical thought that add color and texture to the text. However, for a man so determinedly optimistic in his thesis that faith in some sort of higher being is what will save the human spirit from despair in the unknowable future, some of his brushstrokes feel overbroad and flippant, and when he speaks of modern elements of society (such as the media), he is surprisingly offhand and cynical.

Smith writes: “I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life–politics, living standards, environmental concerns, interpersonal relationships, the arts–we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the worldview we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one,” and though that is the “why” of the book, he doesn’t adequately explain “how” we are to get there.

It seems to me that the question is not a matter of exchanging our worldview, but rather of faith–either one has it or one does not, and there is no way to make someone believe. And religion without faith is a moot exercise, just empty ritual and automatic response, rather than the moving experience Smith would have it be. Religion might matter to those who have it, but for those who don’t, it just doesn’t. And I don’t see how a book, even one as erudite and ecumenical as this one, can change that.

–Julia Park

My Misspent Youth By Meghan Daum Open City (2001), $14

The first time I read one of Meghan Daum’s essays in the New Yorker, I was unable to put it down. I was also unable to go to sleep, and lay staring at the ceiling until well past 4 a.m. The essay was about how Daum, as a freelance writer, had accumulated a $70,000 debt due to grad-school loans and the low, low wages of entry-level workers in the publishing world, and how she was about to pack it in and and move from expensive (but literary) New York City to Nebraska, which is less expensive (and less literary). Everybody knows that to free-lance is to commit yourself to a life of penury. But everybody also knows that you are supposed to eventually break out of it and be summoned to the great Publishing Penthouse in the Sky, especially if you can write like Meghan Daum.

From the American heartland, Daum has now issued a collection titled My Misspent Youth, which includes the New Yorker essay and nine others. The collection highlights both the strongest and weakest aspects of her writing; remarkably, she squeezes her best material out of subjects that have been overcolonized by writers scrabbling for sexy magazine feature stories (polyamory, Internet romance, the secret life of flight attendants). Even more strangely, she seems at her most distant and uncomfortable when she writes about topics unique to herself; for example, her feelings after the sudden death of a friend via a mysterious airborne virus. Occasionally, she bursts out with a beautiful turn of phrase: On the smell of the interior of airplanes, she writes, “It is the scent of the house where the entire world lives.” But Daum’s real gift is that she is sharply observant–critical yet thoughtful at the same time.

One caveat: In the introduction, Daum writes that most of the essays, while based on her own experiences, are not one hundred percent true to life, which is fine; first-person essayists often fictionalize lightly. But then she adds, “A few of the stories I tell never even happened.” The mind throbs. Which one was the fake? They all seem equally plausible, and you feel suckered for having believed them. It’s like the bullet in a game of Russian Roulette–you have no idea when it will turn up, and when it does, it ruins your entire afternoon.

My Misspent Youth is in many ways a document of Daum’s growth as a writer, and even if Daum is done with New York, no doubt the New York publishing industry is not done with her. If you don’t read this book, read her next one.

–Kara Platoni

Electric Light By Seamus Heaney Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2001), $20

Seamus Heaney’s eleventh poetry collection has the lilt of a feisty swan song. Remembrances from his life are often blended with snippets of Irish history, and a sense of historical and mortal inevitability is reinforced by several references to Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic Heaney translated recently to wide acclaim. In “The Border Campaign,” he hints at one reason for his near-obsession with this work. Opening with violent images of Irish border raids in the ’50s, the poet then remembers “a sky that moved…/The way it would have moved the morning after/Savagery in Heorot.” He then closes with a slightly altered quote (an outtake?) from his translation. And in “On His Work in the English Tongue,” which like his Beowulf translation is dedicated to fellow poet Ted Hughes, he addresses the psychological relevance of the ancient epic: “Passive suffering: who said it was disallowed/As a theme for poetry? Already in Beowulf/The dumbfounding of woe, the stunt and stress/Of hurt-in-hiding is the best of it–“

Its dedications to deceased friends give the book an elegiac feel. There’s a poem “To the shade of Zbigniew Herbert,” and several “in memory of” Rory Kavanagh, Mary O’ Muirthe, and others. However, Heaney also maintains his sense of humor. “Audenesque,” written for Joseph Brodsky, is a kind of witty obituary that parodies W.H. Auden as it plays on the trochaic rhythm of Brodsky’s name. His version of “Virgil: Eclogue IX” turns Latin phrases into lines like “Bad cess to him” and “The boyo with the horns.”

Yet for all its erudite playfulness, Electric Light has a reserved, private quality that at times excludes the reader; footnotes on both Heaney’s and Ireland’s histories would have been useful. Nevertheless, when read and reread, Electric Light yields subtle treasures.

–Alexandra Yurkovsky

Seasons of the Arctic Photographs by Paul Nicklen Text by Hugh Brody Sierra Club (2000), $32

For centuries, the dark, seemingly barren, icy arctic region of our planet attracted few visitors but madmen and near-mad explorers. Today, the near-mad explorers have cameras. Photographer Paul Nicklen has spent as much as three months at a time on the tundra and ice floes, and his 700-mm lens has captured the lives and behaviors of some of the most elusive and often camouflaged (white as the snow) arctic species.

Spring and summer in the northern tundra are too short for trees to grow more than one or two inches high. But, as Hugh Brody reveals in his brief text, the native people of the arctic region measure the annual cycle of change in six seasons. The horned larks and snowy owls begin to appear in a “pre-spring” during which the caribou start their migration and ringed seals give birth. Spring arrives as the sun rises and melts the snow, and streams and rivers begin to flow. Poppies, cranberries, and grasses soon bloom and draw the bumblebees, butterflies, spiders, and birds. Then as summer arrives, the ocean releases copepods and krill that attract whales from all over the globe.

The Inuit term for fall literally means “material for small winter.” Native animals are showing layers of fat and new fur or feathers in anticipation of winter. The “small winter” follows the brilliant aurora in the sky, and all migrating animals head south. The last and coldest, darkest season is called the ukiuk, loosely meaning “full winter.”

Every image in this book is bound to inspire. This reader was most drawn to Nicklen’s shot of a bald eagle. I’ve always had a chilly attitude about this bird that appears everywhere in American culture–mainly because it has a nasty tendency to steal prey from smaller and weaker species. But Nicklen’s full-frontal shot of the creature–wings spread, talons extended, and eyes fiercely fixed on salmon just below the water’s surface–is unforgettable. Stare at it for a while and it becomes obvious why this species has provoked hundreds of myths for numerous cultures throughout human history.

To this day the Arctic continues to draw the dreamers of our species. Some of us are continually fascinated by the region’s magnificent life, while others wish to exploit it for oil. If images like Paul Nicklen’s dominated our collective conscience, the Arctic might have a fighting chance.

–Denize Springer

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